Mitt Romney scored a strong victory Tuesday night in New Hampshire, just exceeding John McCain’s 2008 vote total of 37 percent and beating third-place finisher Jon Huntsman by 20 points.
The Romney camp has reason to feel confident as their candidate pivoted to what amounted to a general-election speech in front of an adoring audience of volunteers and donors at Southern New Hampshire University shortly after polls closed.
Romney won virtually every major demographic—with the notable exceptions of independent voters, young voters, and people making under $30,000 a year—all of whom were captured by second-place finisher Ron Paul. For example, Romney won Catholic voters despite running against two Catholic candidates, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. He won evangelical voters. Romney even won Tea Party supporters, despite the long-simmering distrust over what his detractors call RomneyCare.
Significantly, the attacks directed at Romney in recent days—specifically the Newt Super PAC–funded dissection of Bain Capital—appear to have backfired, rallying conservative activists around Romney by making him seem like the sole defender of free-market capitalism. Romney’s victory speech—diligently read from the teleprompter—broke from his slashing contrasts with President Obama only to swipe rival Newt Gingrich for engaging in “the bitter politics of envy.” Many of the Manchester voters I spoke to specifically invoked Romney’s success as a business executive as the reason for their support.
But while Romney built convincingly on his 2008 total of 32 percent, surprisingly mild voter turnout meant that he exceeded his 75,000 votes from four years before by only 15,000 votes. Given that the GOP primaries were the only game in town, this unimpressive overall turnout speaks to a continued enthusiasm gap for the declared candidates.
Another point of perspective—Ronald Reagan won the crowded 1980 New Hampshire primary with 49.6 percent after losing Iowa to George H. W. Bush. And the only Massachusetts statewide elected official to lose a New Hampshire primary—without challenging an incumbent president—was Mitt Romney in 2008.
Nonetheless, tonight was clearly Mitt Romney’s in a neighboring state whose support eluded him in 2008. That year, Romney was running as a social conservative and captured 43 percent of voters who described themselves as “very conservative.” He also led among primary voters who had positive feelings about the sun-setting Bush administration in contrast to frequent administration critic John McCain.
This cycle, Romney is the candidate of the Republican establishment, running as a business executive attuned to the economy, the pragmatic choice seen as having the best chance of beating Barack Obama in the general election. That status was solidified by some of the center-right past party luminaries who appeared at the Romney headquarters rally last night, former governor and Bush 41 chief of staff John Sununu, former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, and former California gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman, who now runs Hewlett-Packard.
Romney emerges from New Hampshire in a strong position to compete in South Carolina, with that state now entering must-win status for the candidates trying to position themselves as the conservative alternatives to the former governor—most notably Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. Romney has his work cut out for him in the Palmetto State, where he earned only 15 percent of the vote and a fourth-place finish in 2008—but he benefits from a still-crowded field of six competitors.
Team Romney is increasingly focused on the general election. They know they have the money and organization to compete as long as it takes to get the required 1,143 delegates—and they are aiming for an unprecedented sweep of the January gauntlet states.
Romney’s victory speech—given while flanked by his family—directed its rhetorical fire squarely at President Obama, offering a preview of general-election contrasts—faith in free markets versus a failed presidency devoted to creating a European-style entitlement society—all while “saving the soul of America” in the process.
Some of the red-meat lines—like “President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial”—were not meant to stand up to logical scrutiny, but they achieved their intended straw-man effect for the pumped-up crowd. Other barbed lines—like “I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are”—implying that the current Oval Office occupant represents the worst of our nation—run the risk of alienating more people than they attract in a general election.
But overall, this was clearly a candidate, a crowd, and a campaign ready for prime time. Mitt Romney’s moment has finally arrived, and his team is ready to roll through the early primary states, racking up wins and consolidating support through competition. After his first decisive and broad-based win, Mitt Romney can start to credibly make the case that he can unite his party after all and take the fight into the fall.